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Military & Veterans' Issues

Coronavirus Upends Military Funerals, Rituals For Families

Ivar Lonon holds two boxes containing the cremated remains of his mother and father at Salisbury National Cemetery in Salisbury, N.C., on Thursday, March 26, 2020.

Among all the milestones, the key rituals of life being cancelled or postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic — weddings, baby showers, birthdays — is that iconic last one for military veterans, burial with military honors.

Most people are familiar with the ceremony. The somber family silent as an honor guard fires 21 rifle shots. The flag folded in a tight triangle and presented with that precisely-word thanks on behalf of a grateful nation. And the plaintive bugle notes of taps.

Everybody knows times are changing and especially with death, you know, associated with the virus. So everybody wants to... abide by those CDC policies and regulations and, and just try to do the right thing. -Gregory Whitney

The VA buries more than 130,000 veterans a year in its 142 national cemeteries. The Salisbury National Cemetery holds more than 1,000 burials a year, and a separate state-run network of four veterans cemeteries holds more than 1,400.

In normal times, the families can opt for military honors. But now they can’t.

The VA and state cemetery systems have been forced to ban the honor guards and ceremonies of any kind.

That's why, instead of pomp and circumstance and a gathering of relatives, what World War II and Vietnam Veteran James Lonon got on a recent cloudy day was about as basic as it gets.

Ivar Lonon, James' son, drove up to a small administration building at the Salisbury National Cemetery, got out with his wife, Paige, and her small dog Niera, and stood in the parking lot.

He cradled two white cardboard boxes in one arm and called the cemetery staff on his cell phone to let them know he was ready.

A few minutes later, a trio came out, led by Sonya Leazer, the cemetery representative. She gave Ivar Lonon an elbow bump that turned out to be the most ceremonial part of the day.

Then the group walked down the hill to a section of in-ground plots for cremated remains.

And orange utility vehicle about the size of a golf cart approached, with dirt and shovels in back. The work crew parked beside a round hole perhaps a foot-and-a-half in diameter.

Leazer looked at the white boxes.

"They're both labeled right?" she asked. "Those plastic bags, they'll put one in each of them. It just helps protect them a little more."

One box contained the cremated remains of Ivar's father, the other his mother, Annie, who had died earlier. They were to be buried together.

Lonon handed the boxes one at a time to cemetery foreman Mike Moose, who carefully checked the plot section and number, recorded the names, and slid each box into a clear plastic bag and zip-tied it shut. Then Moose sank to his knees and leaned down, placing the boxes in the hole.

The crew began shoveling in earth.

And that was it. It’s all the cemetery system can do for now.

Workers at Salisbury National Cemetery back a vehicle up to two gravesites, where the cremated remains of Ivar Lonon's father and mother will be buried in Salisbury, N.C., on Thursday, March 26, 2020.

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Gregory Whitney, the acting director of the Salisbury National Cemetery, said it has to keep the families, the cemetery staff, and the honor guards safe.

"We contact funeral homes to let them know parties of 10 people or less, with social distancing of six feet," he said.

Many honor guards are active duty troops sent by the veteran's service branch. But Whitney said there also are volunteer honor guard teams at the two cemeteries he runs, and they average more than 70 years old, so are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus.

Family members can watch the burials, but they have to stay a safe distance from the cemetery workers, and any group can't have more than 10 people.

"I really haven't heard anything negative, everything's been pretty positive," Whitney said. "Because everybody knows times are changing and especially with, you know, with death, you know, associated with the virus. So everybody wants to, you know, to me, abide by those CDC policies and regulations and, and just try to do the right thing."

The Lonon family had wanted more for James Lonon, a low-key, intellectually restless man raised during the Depression in a rural corner of North Carolina's mountains.

Ivar Lonon said that when he first heard that it was possible to bury his father in a national cemetery, and with an honor guard, that seemed right. James Lonon’s life had became centered around the military. During World War II, after he turned 18, he was drafted into the Army and sent to Europe to fight. After the war, he went to college and got a degree in finance, then decided to join the Air Force and served another 22 years, including a stint in Vietnam.

James Lonon's niece, Laura Prince, called him "Unk," and said he had been like a second father to her, writing and sending her presents from all over the world.

He was raised in a rural community in the mountains near Marion, with 10 siblings, she said, and learning had been a big part of the family culture.

ames Lonon (second from left) posed for picture with three of his brother, Guy, Bill, and Otis. There were 11 siblings including five brothers who served in WWII.

"Education was important, and current events was important," she said. "So as they were growing up, the radio was always on and newspapers were a part of the family life, discussion about politics was always a part of family life. So even though they were geographically isolated, intellectually, they were not."

He and four brothers went off to fight in World War II and somehow all of them made it home. James Lonon was one of those World War Two veterans who never told his family a word about his combat experiences.

He was diligent about work, and often serious, but also kind and thoughtful, said Prince.

Everywhere he went, he tried to learn, she said, be it from visiting art museums in New York, or going around chatting up locals in Ethiopia.

And he sometimes surprised his family with his adventurous streak. Like the time he decided to try skydiving, at age 87.

Ivar Lonon, middle, watches as workers at Salisbury National Cemetery bury the remains of Ivar's father and mother in Salisbury, N.C., on Thursday, March 26, 2020.

James Lonon had settled in Alabama near an Air Force base after retirement. He died there at age 94, back in November.

"We waited this long because we wanted to give the family, all of them being a bit older, a chance to make plans and and come up here," Ivar Lonon said.

They settled on the Salisbury cemetery because not only did it seem like a nice place, and appropriate, but it was between his home in the Triangle, and the relatives in the mountains.

Prince had helped Ivar Lonon organize the ceremony that ended up not happening. It was to include nephews, nieces and grandchildren. But all that was planned before anyone had even heard of Covid-19.

As the outbreak gained steam, the  family had starting to talk through whether it it was a good idea to gather. Most who planned to come were over 65, in the high-risk category for the virus.

Then, when Ivar got a call from the Air Force honor guard representative telling him they weren’t going to be allowed, he knew it was time to either delay the burial or go through with it and try to do the ceremony later. Two days before the burial was scheduled, he made up his mind to go ahead with it.

So, in the end, it was just him, his wife and Niera, and nothing more formal than handing over the boxes and watching the crew fill the hole.

Ivar Lonon said it wasn’t the VA’s fault, the cemetery staff’s or anyone else’s, really.

"Everybody knows what they have to deal with," he said. "And I think everybody tried to make the best out of the situation that we had at hand."

It was hard not to think he was channeling his father, who family members described as calm and practical. Indeed, Prince said James Lonon would have had no issue with the approach the VA is taking.

"He was proud of his military service, but proud in a self-deprecating, humble way," she said. "And he really didn't want a lot of fanfare. I mean, it would have been really nice, the other way would be really nice, especially if, if some of us could have been there. But we will still honor him. The next time we get together, and we do regular Lonon cousin reunions."

Ivar Lonon holds paintings of his mother and father.

Across the state, some veterans' families are deciding to postpone burial for cremated remains until the pandemic subsides and cemetery operations can return to normal. Others, like the Lonons, are going ahead with burial, and in some cases planning to hold the honor guard ceremony part later.

And Ivar Lonon still wants to have the military honors. The VA has said when the pandemic subsides, it will schedule that.

"The fact that we can come back and do it at a later date, I think heals a lot of those wounds," he said.

And his father would have understood, Ivar said. It’s like in World War II, when James Lonon was drafted. The whole country had to make sacrifices for the fight.

At the grave, after the crew finished filling the hole, then placed a round plug of turf on top and tamped it down lightly.

Bermuda grass. A drab winter brown now. It will be beautiful later, though, said one of the men.

One of them tidied up with a rake, then they got back in the tiny utility vehicle and chugged away.

Ivar stood awhile amid the tombstones and looked at their handiwork.

Then the Lonons and Naomi the dog walked up a hill to the parking lot, climbed back in their SUV and drove away to rejoin a nation on pause. 

A nation that is grateful, even if it can’t say so right now.